Most of the people who read this are aware of and have rejected what is commonly known as “the prosperity gospel.” This heresy of “name it, claim it” is advanced by such false teachers as Kenneth Copeland, Creflo Dollar, T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meyer. Basically, they teach an ancient heresy that claims we create reality by the words we speak. If you want blessing then you must speak your word of faith to claim the blessings that God wants to give you but cannot unless you release Him. If you don’t want cancer or the flu then you must speak in faith against those conditions and claim your health. If you desire financial prosperity then you must speak against the spirit of lack and claim your increase. The ancients called this sorcery. The Christian publishing industry calls it “Christian Living.”
While most of us have rejected this tragically popular heresy, many of us have nevertheless fallen for a more subtle version of the same thing. It is what Michael Horton has recently called “Christ-less Christianity.” It is a version of Christianity that could exist perfectly well without Christ’s atoning work on the cross. In this formula Christ is not the Savior from the coming wrath of God but the one who helps us have a healthy self-esteem. Jesus is not the sole Mediator between sinful man and holy God as much as He is the ultimate life coach, a divine Tony Robbins. It is what Martin Luther called the “theology of glory”: seeking to have now what God has promised only for heaven.
In contrast to the “theology of glory” is what Luther called the “theology of the cross”: the story of God’s merciful condescension to us by putting forth His dearly loved Son to be the propitiation for our sins. It is the message that the apostle Paul called “foolishness to Greeks” and “a stumbling block to Jews.” Michael Horton has written:
“Exemplifying the moralistic and therapeutic approach to religion, Osteen’s message is also a good example of the inability of Boomers to mourn in the face of God’s judgment or dance under the liberating news of God’s saving mercy. In other words, all gravity is lost – both the gravity of our problem and of God’s amazing grace. According to this message, we are not helpless sinners – the ungodly – who need a one-sided divine rescue. (Americans, but especially Boomers, don’t take bad news well.) Rather, we are good people who just need a little instruction and motivation.”
Without a deep understanding of, and abiding confidence in the work of Christ on the cross Christians grasp for, even demand other blessings from God because the stunning grace of redemption has been lost to them. Lip service is given to the fact that “Jesus died for my sins” but since my sins weren’t all that bad then the news is not all that great. Therefore a kind of Christianity that the Bible never describes is constructed; one that will make worldly minded people happy. In his book Your Best Life Now Joel Osteen writes, “You do your part, and God will do his part” (p. 57). “Sure we have our faults,” he writes, but “the good news is, God loves us anyway” (ibid, 66). “If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor” (ibid, 119). Sounds easy doesn’t it? Just obey God’s commands. What could be so hard about that?
Perhaps it is easy to dismiss such nonsense because it is written by Joel Osteen. But remember, Osteen pastors the largest church in North America and has written two enormous best-sellers. What is more, the ideas he advances are in no way unique to him. They can be found in countless other “Christian” books and church pulpits. Even conservative, so-called Bible-believing churches have embraced this brand of Christianity that practically skips the cross.
How many sermons are preached in evangelical churches that are able to stand without any mention of the cross? These pastors preach a version of faith that is preoccupied with personal success and “making life work.” The cross becomes white noise. It’s in the background somewhere. It’s assumed. Instead of being the center-piece of faith, life, and hope the cross is merely a means toward the really good news: you can have your best life now. God’s terrifying condemnation of sinners is ignored completely but then so too is the earth-shattering good news of justification through the cross. Of this reality, Horton writes, “Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful…Everything depends on us, but it’s easy.”
What happens is that the gospel itself is lost. The distinction between law and gospel is blurred and all that is left is a kinder, gentler version of the law: “Do this and you will live.” The law proclaimed in our pulpits is not truly God’s overwhelming moral law which drives the sinner to repentance. It is a “you can do it if you try a little harder and turn your frown upside down” kind of message. It is not God’s firey law that leaves us convinced of our need for a Savior which is being proclaimed. It is a list of instructions that are all attainable if we will just be positive and make a better effort. When God’s law is diminished in this way, the “good news” becomes the blessings that we will get in return for our obedience. There is no need for the cross. God’s wrath does not need to be propitiated because sin is not that big of a deal and besides, he loves me anyway.
When preachers and writers make the cross obsolete then what is left may be religious but it is certainly not Christian. There is no good news apart from the cross. Specifically, there is no good news apart from the message of God’s justified wrath being satisfied in the substitutionary death of His Son. It is the message that drives along the entire story line of Scripture. How then can a pastor preach without pointing to the cross again and again? Without the cross we lose the only power promised to us: the power of the Gospel to save all who believe. If the cross be not central to our proclamation and spirituality then we are left with nothing more than a version of Gnosticism.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18)
On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard O. Forde
Too Good To Be True by Michael Horton
"Joel Osteen and the Glory Story" by Michael Horton - great article!